Thursday, January 28, 2010

Channeling Barry Trotz, Part III

Part I: On The Forecheck's take
Part II: Preds 101's take
Part III: Pull My (Fang) Finger's take
Part IV: Seth Lake's take
Part V: Preds on the Glass' take
[Picking up the pre-vacation series, DBJ readers recall that the Columbus Blue Jackets leadership is apparently looking to model their franchise on the Nashville Predators - especially their coach and general manager.  With all of the hue and cry about coaching and whether Ken Hitchcock is the long-term answer as CBJ head coach (which has largely subsided since the team started playing .500 hockey), I asked a few knowledgable Preds bloggers to offer their insights on coach Barry Trotz and what makes him so successful as Nashville's only head coach.
And we've learned a few lessons along the way...]

LESSON 1: Be a good guy, a relationship builder, a guy who worries about tomorrow as well as today.
LESSON 2: Perhaps its "Southern Hospitality", but In Nashville, Keeping Coaches is What We Do.
LESSON 3: Coaching a Scheme that [Columbus] Needs
LESSON 4: Players Coaches
LESSON 5: Beating Teams and Expectations

Next up, AJ in Nashville, blogger at Pull My (Fang) Finger (nice title!).  AJ was kind enough to engage in a little email dialogue with me on the topic of the Preds success...and offer his thoughts on the Columbus Blue Jackets as well.  This is a well written response, and I've edited the response by bolding what I think are the key points that AJ is making.  Hope that helps.
First off let me say that I'm flattered that you'd think to ask my opinion in the first place! I appreciate your kind words with regard to my blog.
I don't know if you've read the handful of posts in which I've keyed upon the Bluejackets, but I myself have expressed frustration over their retarded (no pun intended, I assure you) development. Don't get me wrong -- I'm always going to root for my team first, but I really like Ken Hitchcock as a coach -- primarily because he's so similar in style to Barry Trotz (and because he started this whole Evil Empire deal -- which means he doesn't take himself too seriously -- and I think that's a plus for ANY coach or sports figure in general).
But yeah, I do believe I have a decent handle on what makes Trotz successful at what he does, but it's a kind of unique circumstance that works well here in Music City but may not elsewhere.
First off, Trotz's success can be directly tied to the synergy that he and GM David Poille have always had. Their relationship goes years beyond Nashville, back to the days when Poille was GM of the Washington Capitals and Trotz was one of his minor league coaches. It's a responsibility-first (both offensive and defensively), defensively-driven philosophy that Poille has always believed in, and of course, which Trotz had perfected over the years.
The offensive side of the equation requires traffic in front of the net, as opposed to a slick-passing perimeter-shooting style in the attacking zone. It's a 'meet me at the Blue Ice Cafe -- and don't forget your hard-hat' mentality; it requires physical sacrifice for a big reward. It's 'no pain, no gain' all the way.
It's a philosophy that can be successful in both large and small markets, with budgets to match -- although in reality, it's is best-suited for the cash-strapped franchise like Nashville, because the gritty player who is willing to 'go to the hard areas,'  as Trotz has always preached, is oftentimes less expensive than the Gretzky wannabe snipers who only care about scoring goals and looking good on Sportscenter.
It has worked in Nashville because of this team's financial reality, but it was never fully adopted, in my opinion, until just the past two seasons, due to the 'okay, I guess we REALLY have to do this now' changes that have happened here, personnel-wise.
Prior to the Preds first making the playoffs in 2003-04, Trotz's teams were always competitive -- that's why unlike Chicago and Pittsburgh, the Predators have never had the opportunity to grab the elite scorers at the top of the NHL Entry Draft with which to build an offensive club.
When Poille was finally able to steal Steve Sullivan from the Blackhawks in 2004, it appeared that was what the Preds needed to finally make it over the top. Since then, the deep, outstanding crop of defensemen that Poille has drafted, along with the boldness shown by Paul Kariya, Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont to come to Nashville as free agents, helped complete the picture and led directly to four straight playoff appearances.
The key to those FA signings was the concept of TEAM that Nashville represented to each of those players. Sure they probably wanted to be big fish in a small pond, but look at what's happened. 
I used joke that Jason Arnott was 'the smallest big man NHL' because of how little he used to take advantage of that big 6'4" frame. But no longer. Arnott, Dumont and Sullivan play a tight-checking, responsible defense wherever they are on the ice. And all three signed or re-signed long-term contracts with Nashville when they could have easily gone elsewhere for more money.
This team believes in the Piolle/Trotz System. They've never let success go to their heads, but until this season, I don't believe they've ever been as completely dialed-in to the system as they are now.
There are a lot of reasons why i believe the Preds are as good or better this season than they've ever been before, hard as that is to believe. And if they can get Marty Erat, Jordin Tootoo and Jared Smithson back soon, while avoiding any further serious or lengthy injuries the rest of the way, I can guarantee that they'll turn some heads come playoff time.
Geeze, I hope that's not too much to sift through, but it's the Reader's Digest version of what I've been saying in my blog all season long. I've been really stoked about how the team has gelled since mid-November, and I believe this team is better-suited for a deep playoff run than the Kariya/Foresberg/Timonen team of 2006-07, just prior to former owner Craig Leipold's decision to blow it up.
As to the Blue Jackets' plight, I have a lot of strong opinions that I don't believe would be appropriate to share, simply because I'm not intimate with all aspects of the situation. Let me just say, however, the Preds have never overestimated themselves, nor has Poille or Trotz. On the Columbus side of that coin, for a long time I believed that Doug Maclean was a boat achor around the neck of that franchise. MacLean has always been all hat and no cattle, despite making it to a Cup final in Florida. I think there's still plenty of fallout to be dealt with from the damage he's done.
But that's totally the opinion of an outsider. Take it for what it's worth.
Like I said in one of my earlier posts, I thought the Bluejackets had turned the corner last season. I really thought they would be a serious contender for years to come. I'm as puzzled as anyone as to why things have gone as sour as they appear to have done this season.
Personally, I am all for hanging on to Ken Hitchcock, but he needs to have some help in obtaining the right kind of players, who have the right mentality to play his system. GM Scott Howson and Hitch must be on the same page in order to duplicate what the Predators have accomplished. it's really not rocket science, but it IS a helluva lot of work.
Whether or not this group of Bluejacket players can make it work for them, only time will tell.
Okay, I'm exhaling now.  *LOL*
Lots to think about in this post, indeed.  I followed up with AJ with this email:
WOW - What terrific insight!
So it sounds to me like it was a matter of churning the Nashville roster to finally get the mix of players who would play Trotz's game.  That tells me he's one heck of a survivor.
I was thinking it might be Trotz's personality (ability to relate to players), his flexibility to match system to players (not sure that's the case from what you said) or something else.  Apparently, it's not.  That's surprising.
To weather the storm for 10-ish years is incredible.  You guys are lucky down there to have a guy like Trotz.  And Poille, too.  And to think you weathered the ownership
FWIW, your words on Trotz could just as well be mine on Hitch.  They're clearly cut from the same philosophical cloth.  The rosters, though, are very different as you wisely implied.
Enjoy 2010 and your playoff run!  I'll be interested to see how far the Preds can go this season.
His response offered additional insight, some of which contrasts with other Preds bloggers:
Um, I guess I did leave out the personality part, didn't I? I do believe that has a lot to do with his success, perhaps just as much as the Xs and Os.
You were right in surmising about the 'churning of the roster' part. I didn't really want to get in to all the speculation of whether or not the Kariyas and Foresbergs were as much of a hindrance as a help to the Preds by the time the playoffs rolled around, but that's why I like this team now; it's built for playoff-style hockey -- not highlight reels.
Trotz and Poille did effectively churn down the roster, and that's one of the reasons why Alex Radulov didn't want to stay in Nashville; being a 2-way player cramped his style. But that's another email *LOL*. Additionally, as I said, other players changed their games -- Marty Erat changed big time, and David Legwand is now one of the best shut-down forwards in the league.
Trotz's personality HAD to play a role in all that, else I'm sure he would have gone nuts years ago and quit.
He makes sense. I think that registers well with his players.
However I wouldn't classify Trotzy as a player's coach. He really plays it down the middle. He's even characterized himself as a coach who doesn't get too high after wins or too low after losses, and tries to keep his team's emotions under wraps as well. He wears a poker face just about all the time, but is a very warm and friendly person to speak to. It really is his personality that makes it all work.
He's also extremely patient, but not afraid to pull a goalie or a player who makes stupid mistakes. A perfect example was his rocky relationship with Scott Hartnell.
His first few years, Hartz was in Trotz's doghouse more often than his own pooch for his undisciplined play. But look at him now. He's still an idiot sometimes, but by and large there isn't a coach in the league who wouldn't love to have Hartnell screening the opposing goalie every night. He was the one player from the Preds 'glory' teams who DID get Trotz's system in the end. However he was also one that ol' snake-in-the-grass Leipold targeted to be cut loose rather than to give him his first big veteran contract.
Trotz has as little ego as you're gonna find in an NHL bench boss. The Preds are his first and only NHL assignment. he wasn't even an assistant at the big league level (that I know of). I don't believe he feels he really has anything to be cocky about. One really funny thing that Trotz said once with regard to ego (don't quote me here because this is a very loose paraphrase), "Hey, I have to look at this face in the mirror every morning. (points to his head) I KNOW I don't have any reason to have an ego."
So while he obviously has a lot of self-confidence, he doesn't believe he's all that. He doesn't throw tantrums in the dressing room or from behind the bench. He isn't bombastic in the press; in fact he's almost boring he's so consistent: "Drive to the net" -- "go to the hard areas" -- "work the corners" -- "detail" -- "structure" -- "consistency" and so forth.
Glad you gave me a chance to add that. It IS a big part of what makes Barry Trotz the special coach that he is.
More and more, I'm seeing a greater number of similarities between Trotz and Hitchcock than differences.  What do the readers think?

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